Thursday, 20 June 2013


'To conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got. The usual outcome was that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore.' (Pages 66)

If people do certain things and I become and remain sore, I have a problem. Or if people repeatedly do certain things and I repeatedly become sore, I really have a problem. That would mean I haven't recovered from the condition described in the Big Book—I haven't recovered past the top of page 66.

The Book will later talk about a new freedom (page 83).

Do I have this freedom?

'We began to see that the world and its people really dominated us.' (Page 66)

If I am upset by people being offensive, rude, or disrespectful, I'm a puppet. You pull my strings, and I dance like a fool.

If you upset me or cause me to be agitated, I have relinquished the reins of my life and put them in your hands. If, furthermore, I'm upset or agitated on account of the foolish or malevolent, these are precisely the people I'm the emotional slave to. In this case, I'm the real fool.

If I want to be free, I need to rely on God, speaking through my conscience; if I do wrong and feel bad, that is an appropriate response requiring remedial action. Whether or not I get respect, validation, admiration, agreement, or civility from others, whilst sometimes useful as a sign, cannot be taken as a consistently reliable barometer of anything.

Next time someone upsets me, I hope I ask, 'what do I want—freedom or slavery?'

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Other people's faults

"Though his family be at fault in many respects, he should not be concerned about that. He should concentrate on his own spiritual demonstration. Argument and fault-finding are to be avoided like the plague."

Here is a list of people whose faults are my business:


Let's avoid the deliberate manufacture of misery (page 133)

'I'm upset because she doesn't respect me anymore.'

'Do others respect you?'

'Oh, yes.'

'Where is the respect that they give you? Can you show it to me?'

'What do you mean?'

'I mean, someone gives you a slice of cake, and you can show me the cake. Someone gives you respect, and you can't show it to me? Is it even there?'

'Well, I guess it's not actually there physically, but earlier today she criticised me in front of the boss. That was real. She actually did that.'

'Did the sound waves from her voice hurt your ears?

'Well, obviously not.'

'So, what was it that actually upset you?'

'It was the thought that after all the hard work I have put in, she picks up on one tiny flaw and makes a big deal of it. I'm upset at the thought that, in her mind, she thinks I am worthless.'

' "… the thought …", you say? So, you're upset because of your thought about what someone else is thinking. You take two people: one respects you and the other does not, but, right now, neither are thinking about you. And you're still upset about what someone thinks of you, and they're not even thinking it anymore. Or you're pleased about what someone thinks of you, and they're not even thinking it anymore, either. Where does this 'respect' go, when the person stops thinking about you? Or the lack of respect, respectively?'

'Damn you'.

'Was anyone else bothered by this thought?'

'Only once I shared it.'

'How generous of you to share this thought and infect someone else with it. If only one person sees a ghost, is it there? If only two people see it, is it any more real than if only one person sees it? Does the sharing of a delusion make the delusion real? What if everyone shared the delusion? Is it more real, then? And if there were not one delusion but billions? We're already in the era of the Zombie Apocalypse, and the war has been lost. Almost. There might be hope for you, at least.

So, back to reality. What is happening right now? Are you being harmed right now?'

'Right now, no. In fact, most of the time, no; actually almost never. But when I am physically in pain, that's real, right?'

'If your leg hurts, nerve signals are conveying the information that tissue has been damaged in your leg. Not very pleasant, to be sure, but there's a difference between pain and disturbance. Where is the disturbance coming from? The thing itself or your thought about it?'

'Damn. You can't take that pain away from me. It's all I have left!'


Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Good to myself

Today I’m going to be good to myself.

I’m going to do that by fitting myself to be of maximum service to others (page 77), placing other people’s welfare ahead of my own (page 96), and constantly thinking of others and how I may help meet their needs (page 20).

In my experience, this will be far better for my welfare than doing what I want to do, when I want to do it.

I spent years effectively neglecting myself by putting myself first. That will always be to my ultimate detriment.


A good relationship is where you spend time with someone being cheerful (113, 132, 133), useful (13, 43, 49, 76, 77, 86), and kind (83). You reduce expectations as far as possible (118, 127)). You correct your faults, not theirs (98, 118). You do not monitor their conduct (135). You are grateful for everything (119) and overlook anything that is not to your taste (67, 98). Build for the long term (83, 123), whilst keeping the mind present in the now. That’s where you’ll find the other person, and that’s where you’ll find God (59).

Abandon ship!

'My wife and I abandoned ourselves with enthusiasm …' (Page 15)

We do not spruce up a sinking ship. We abandon it. We abandon self. We do not spruce it up.

How to succeed in any endeavour


Step Six fears

Sometimes people are scared of giving themselves entirely to the programme, in case the change that is required also necessitates giving up good things; people are scared of not having enough sex, money, power, prestige, comfort, thrills, or appearance.

The truth is this: whatever God has in store for me is better than anything I could have planned (page 100).

That has been true in every department of my life.

To be scared of God's will is insane. It is like fearing the loss of ladders when you're being offered the chance to fly.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Pot-ay-to or pot-ah-to?

Is there a difference between defects and shortcomings?

We know that Bill W., who originally wrote the words, was avoiding repetition, which actually settles the matter, but even if Bill W. had not said that, we have (a) some evidence and (b) our critical faculties.

Let's look at what the Big Book says.

Steps Six and Seven (short form, page 58) read:

'6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.'

Steps Six and Seven (long form, page 76) read:

'If we can answer to our satisfaction, we then look at Step Six. We have emphasized willingness as being indispensable. Are we now ready to let God remove from us all the things which we have admitted are objectionable? Can He now take them all—every one? If we still cling to something we will not let go, we ask God to help us be willing.
When ready, we say something like this: "My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen." We have then completed Step Seven.'

The terms available are (a) defects of character and (b) shortcomings. There are also two descriptions: 'all the things which we have admitted are objectionable' (Step Six) and ' every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows' (Step Seven).

We have to assume, also, that the summary of the Steps on page 58 is an adequate and correct summation of the long form version of the Step on page 76, where the ideas summarised in the Steps are expanded upon.

Either these terms are meant to denote different things, or they all denote the same thing.

Which is more logical?

If 'shortcomings' are different than 'defects of character', what we ask God to remove in Step Seven is different than what we prepare to have God remove in Step Six. That makes no sense.

If Step Six is concerned with 'defects of character' ('the things we have admitted are objectionable'), and Step Seven is concerned with 'shortcomings', and these are supposed to be different, Step Seven on the scrolls (which refers to the removal of shortcomings) is actually inconsistent with how to work Step Seven, described on page 76 (which refers to the removal of defects of character). That makes no sense either.

One would have to disregard page 58 and go with page 76 or disregard page 76 and go with page 58.

Furthermore, if we are to hold that they are different, we might expect this problem to have been foreseen and forfended, and the difference would have been explained.

A good rule is the application of Occam's razor—basically, when you have a conundrum, you take the simplest solution.

If they mean different things, one would have to assume that the writers thought it wise to keep this distinction secret and let people guess, because they do not distinguish the terms.

It is simpler to assume that the writers meant what they said in the foreword: 'To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.' Holding secret information key to the understanding or working of a Step would be inconsistent with this stated purpose.

No: defects and shortcomings are the same, both denoting what is objectionable and what stands in the way of our usefulness, as described on page 76. Basta!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Trémaux's algorithm and a few simple rules

'Let families realise, as they start their journey, that all will not be fair weather. Each in his turn may be footsore and may straggle. There will be alluring shortcuts and by-paths down which they may wander and lose their way.' (Alcoholics Anonymous pages 122–123)

If you are in a maze, you will struggle to find your way out through intuition or common sense. What look like promising avenues turn out to be dead ends or to lead you back to where you started. Mazes cannot be thought through.

There are various methods of escaping mazes, each method suited to the design of maze in question. There is one method, however, which works on all mazes:

'Trémaux's algorithm, invented by Charles Trémaux, is an efficient method to find the way out of a maze that requires drawing lines on the floor to mark a path, and is guaranteed to work for all mazes that have well-defined passages. A path is either unvisited, marked once or marked twice. Every time a direction is chosen it is marked by drawing a line on the floor (from junction to junction). In the beginning a random direction is chosen (if there is more than one). On arriving at a junction that has not been visited before (no other marks), pick a random direction (and mark the path). When arriving at a marked junction and if your current path is marked only once then turn around and walk back (and mark the path a second time). If this is not the case, pick the direction with the fewest marks (and mark it, as always). When you finally reach the solution, paths marked exactly once will indicate a direct way back to the start. If there is no exit, this method will take you back to the start where all paths are marked twice.'

Make sense? Probably not, but this does work universally. One simply has to follow the instructions, even if they appear, in the moment, to be laborious or counter-intuitive. Each instruction, however, is indeed simple, in and of itself. Why this works as a method may not be self-evident, but work it does.

I have often tried to operate on emotional instinct in the moment, or on the basis of attempting to gain intellectual oversight of my situation.

As with mazes, emotional instinct can be very misleading; as with mazes, intellectual oversight can be gained only with full information. When you are in a maze, you have only what you can see in front of you plus memory. Even if you think you have generated rules for how the maze is laid out, the maze is at liberty to break its own rules. In any case, whatever you see and intuit falls far short of the overview required to plot the most effective and efficient course.

As with mazes, we may or may not be provided with a map, after the event, that plots the course we have taken. Future disclosure will not help us in the moment, however. I have sometimes understood only years later exactly how I navigated a particularly thorny period—only years later will the path typically make sense (page 100).

Mazes cannot be thought through; they can, however, be acted out of, on the basis of principle.

In AA, the principles can be boiled down in many ways, but what works for me is this:

Have a plan for the day—ask God for it (page 86); base my actions on giving, rather than getting (page 128); consult with others (page 80); do as I think God would have me and humbly rely on Him (page 68).

Make sense? Maybe not, but this does work universally. One simply has to follow the instructions, even if they appear, in the moment, to be laborious or counter-intuitive. Each instruction, however, is indeed simple, in and of itself. Why this works as a method may not be self-evident, but work it does.

The instructions are not the Higher Power but the method by why the Higher Power is accessed; they work not because the universe is a cold, dead, mechanism but because there is a higher order and design.

These are the principles I follow and which have solved every problem I have ever had ('Quite as important was the discovery that spiritual principles would solve all my problems'—page 42).

I do not need to think everything through obsessively; I do not need to navigate by emotions; I do not need to try to gain an overview of my entire life—for this is impossible and fruitless; all I need to do is follow these simple rules.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Self-esteem and integrity

Page 28 of the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous' states:

'If what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all of us, whatever our race, creed, or colour, are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try.'

Herein lies the answer to what I would in the past have termed 'low self-worth'. I was crippled by this condition, and it was the chief symptom of a spiritual malady to which alcohol was an adequate solution at least for some time. For me to stay sober, the spiritual malady must be resolved, and to achieve this, this line from the Book must be implemented in my life.

The first noteworthy idea is that we are the children of a living Creator. To me, this idea suggests that, as any child of a parent, I am of infinite worth to that parent. Only in sick families are there favourites; in healthy families, there are none. I am totally loved by God, but so is everyone else. This understanding is the basis of healthy self-esteem.

For this self-esteem to be manifest in my life, however, I need to pay attention to the second part: I need a relationship with God formed upon simple and understandable terms.

It may appear, therefore, that the spiritual path will involve absolute devotion to creating and maintaining a relationship with God. The method of achieving this is not so self-evident, however; at several points in the Book, it suggests that this relationship is created in practice chiefly by forming relationships with others, on a particular footing:

'Faith without works was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic! For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die. Then faith would be dead indeed. With us it is just like that.' (Pages 14–15)

'Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.' (Page 77)

'Both of you will awaken to a new sense of responsibility for others. You, as well as your husband, ought to think of what you can put into life instead of how much you can take out. Inevitably your lives will be fuller for doing so. You will lose the old life to find one much better.' (Pages 119–120)

So, service to others appears to be the method by which this relationship is achieved, and the truth of our infinite worth as part of a greater family becomes manifest.

I would suggest, however, that a further element lies here: 'Now we try to put spiritual principles to work in every department of our lives.' (Page 116)

To me, this boils down to integrity:

In addition to the question of whether I am putting others first, I need to ask the following questions:

Do I place character-building first?
Do I take on levels of service (inside and outside AA) commensurate with my ability, energy, and true availability?
Do I do what I said I was going to do, when I said I was going to do it?
Do I ever try to get something for nothing?
Am I living up to my responsibilities to the wider community and society?
Am I self-supporting?
Am I loyal, where loyalty is due?
Am I generous without being reckless?
Am I candid when necessary?
Am I discreet when necessary?
Am I wasteful of anything (time, money, opportunity)?
Am I doing anything to harm others or cause suffering—in word or in deed?

If I can answer these questions satisfactorily, I have integrity.

Without the understanding that I am of fundamental, unchanging value, my sense of self will fluctuate like a stock-market index, reflecting the sentiment and transient ups and downs of each day.

Without integrity, the sense of eternal value will remain an abstraction, a taunt, or a joke.

With understanding and integrity, every block to a relationship with God is removed.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Sponsorship—do I just listen to my sponsor, or can I listen to other people too? What does the Big Book say?

Sometimes, in recovery, people suggest that one listen only to one's sponsor, and ignore everything everyone else says, unless it's identical to what one's sponsor says, in case this causes confusion.

Fortunately, the Big Book does not state anywhere that one should listen to one person and one person only (save for those who are totally ad idem with that person!) It does not even talk about sponsors, although in Chapter Seven it does talk about the tone of the relationship between you and the man you are trying to show this programme:

'Having had the experience yourself, you can give him much practical advice. Let him know you are available if he wishes to make a decision and tell his story, but do not insist upon it if he prefers to consult someone else.' (Page 96)

There is no sense of exclusivity here.

If one examines the early days of AA, one does not find this 'single-source' sponsorship. Page 263 of the Big Book says that, in Cleveland in 1941, the twelfth-stepping process required the individual to be talked to 'by at least five members'.

What the Big Book does talk about is meetings. 'The very practical approach to his problems, the absence of intolerance of any kind, the informality, the genuine democracy, the uncanny understanding which these people had were irresistible.' (Page 160)

I would propose that the reason we have meetings, rather than AA consisting solely of one-to-one relationships, is that the experience of a group is more valuable than the experience of one person. It would not make much sense to have a group but then to have to fill one's ears with wax to prevent the experience of anyone but one's sponsor penetrating one's intracranial gloom lest irretrievable muddle be the result.

Even in very strong, rigorous parts of AA where there is real singleness of purpose and agreement about method, what is shared at meetings typically makes clear sometimes significant interindividual differences. All sorts of people who use the Big Book as the basic text and follow its instructions will follow those instructions in slightly different ways. For instance, some people see eight questions to answer on page 67; others see four. Some people see the reference at the top of page 74 to 'person or persons' with whom to take Step Five as indication that one may or even should take Step Five with more than one person; others are appalled at this. Listen to the 'Primary Purpose' crowd, then compare this to the 'Big Book Step Study' crowd. Boy, is there variation amongst the true believers!

Over the last 20 years in AA, I am glad I have listened to more than one person, and learned from the experience of many people rather than the experience of just one. I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that God saw fit to create a fellowship so that we would learn from the many, not the one.

There is obviously a risk of sponsor-shopping or advice-shopping, but self-honesty will reveal whether one is shopping around to avoid painful truths or actions or whether listening widely has as its purpose the enrichment of one's recovery.

The real question to ask when listening to advice or experience of people other than one's sponsor is this: is what this person is saying consistent with the principles set out in the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous'? Is this coming from experience or is this opinion? How is this working for the person in question?

If I can answer these questions satisfactorily and the advice or experience is not inconsistent with my sponsor's approach, then full steam ahead to its application. If there is inconsistency, a chat with my sponsor is worthwhile.

Sometimes there is a terror that, if the instructions are not followed in a particular, very narrowly defined way, one will drink, even though whole swathes of the AA world are staying sober permanently and living happy, productive lives by approaching the Twelve Steps in a slightly or even radically different way.

But surely our founders would disagree with variation between how different people apply the principles? Actually, the truth is this: the man who wrote most of the Book did not himself originally take Twelve Steps, certainly not precisely as he later outlined in 1939, back in 1934/1935, although the substance is very similar. He was most definitely following the Oxford Group approach, and an examination of the first draft of Bill's Story indicates that what is described on pages 63 to 88 is sometimes quite different to what his initial experience was in 1934/1935.

Page 263 indicates how Dr Bob took someone through the Steps:

'The day before I was due to go back to Chicago, a Wednesday and Dr Bob's afternoon off, he had me down to the office and we spent three or four hours formally going through the Six-Step program as it was at that time. The six steps were:
      1. Complete deflation.
      2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.
      3. Moral inventory.
      4. Confession.
      5. Restitution.
      6. Continued work with other alcoholics.
      Dr Bob led me through all of these steps. At the moral inventory, he brought up some of my bad personality traits or character defects, such as selfishness, conceit, jealousy, carelessness, intolerance, ill-temper, sarcasm and resentments. We went over these at great length and then he finally asked me if I wanted these defects of character removed. When I said yes, we both knelt at his desk and prayed, each of us asking to have these defects taken away.'

And yet … Bill was the man who took Dr Bob through the Steps. Sounds like both men applied a degree of adaptation in how they then sought to carry the message and then how the fellowship wrote about this.

It is clear from these three sources: the first draft of Bill's Story, the programme 'as set out', and Dr Bob's method, that the authors of the Book themselves did not subscribe to the belief that there is only one way to work this programme, with all other methods being heretical or inviting immediate doom.

What I see in the Big Book is a programme that is organic, not set in stone for evermore. Having said that, I do personally try to stick as close as possible to the basic text, but it is not so much a straight-jacket as a torch-lit path through the dark woods.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Big Book—literally and liberally

A number of years ago, some people changed my life.

They suggested that, instead of reading the Big Book, I use it.

They suggested I do this by applying two approaches.

Firstly, whenever the Book is describing what an alcoholic is like, I ask myself if I identify.

Secondly, whenever the Book suggests an action, I take the action, where possible and applicable.

I was encouraged to note words like 'every' in Step Five (page 75) and 'utmost' in Step Nine (page 77) and not skimp in any way. I noted the line 'all of us spend much of our spare time in the sort of effort which we are going to describe', when the Book is describing Step Twelve (page 19).

I was encouraged to take this literally, and do precisely what was suggested.

I have tried this. It worked—and continues to work—wonders.


The same people also suggested an approach to take which would then solve all of the problems in my life as a whole, by practising these principles in all my affairs.

They suggested I look in the Book for principles. The principles may be described with reference to a particular scenario, but such principles could have general application, they thought.

For instance, at one point it describes how it is useless to argue and merely makes the impasse worse (pages 126 to 127). The context is that the newly sober alcoholic husband is neglecting his family by concentrating on work.

Obviously, the avoidance of argument, on the grounds that it makes impasses worse, is a principle that can be applied generally, and almost universally.

Only a fool would suggest the principle apply only in that specific context.

In the light of this, the Book contains literally hundreds of principles.

The Book, when taken in this way, plus Bill's essays on the Traditions and the Concepts, provide a composite, coherent, consistent solution that has solved every problem in my life for the last twenty years.

As my friend Saskia says, 'I'm glad they wrote this down'.